May 252004

Hardy looks at the ocean and sees the ocean:

A distant verge morosely gray
Appears, while clots of flying foam
Break from its muddy monochrome,
And a light blinks up far away.
(The Wind’s Prophecy)

Dickinson looks in a meadow and sees a snake:

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens farther on.
(A narrow fellow in the grass)

Wordsworth looks at a landscape and sees — Wordsworth:

— Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under the dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door…
(Tintern Abbey)

A landscape presses, on most of us, thoughts of our own insignificance. Not Wordsworth: Nature puffs him up. Wordsworth beholds, Wordsworth reposes, and Wordsworth sees. Yet Wordsworth notices nothing. The scene is a blur; Wordsworth favors blurring, and there will be a great deal more of it later on. Cliffs, “steep and lofty” God help us, “connect,” oddly enough, the land with the sky; green fruits “lose themselves” in the green meadows. The one distinct feature is Wordsworth himself, who is everywhere, like Ali in the ring. Tintern Abbey would not be worth discussing except that it is commonly considered a great poem and has intelligent admirers who do not make their living exhuming Wordsworth. So here we go.

Begin with the title, which is not merely Tintern Abbey but Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798. This is lucky for the reader unacquainted with the geography of the Lake District, to whom the lines

How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!

might otherwise give pause. The significance of July 13, 1798, remains unclear. The unfortunate half-pun “oft, in” with “often” is characteristic. In this Bogan poem such near-repetition is used effectively. Of course Bogan had talent.

I grant that bloggers are not in the best position to criticize someone else for being deeply moved by the sound of his own voice; but this is a man who needs a line and a half to clear his throat:

Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift…

A gift, it turns out, for unintentional comedy:

Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountain…

A man whose thoughts are never interesting, for all his devotion to them. Tintern Abbey runs to 158 lines, and what thought we get is summarized in its most famous passage:

A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

These elevated thoughts amount to nothing more than a very mild version of the ecstatic merger with all existence that we find later, at excruciating length, in Whitman, and still later, with tragic consequences, in Crane. I confess I find the doctrine incoherent. Thirty lines later Wordsworth complains of “rash judgments,” “greetings where no kindness is,” and “the dreary intercourse of daily life,” all surely objectionable but equally surely included in the class of “all objects of all thought.” Where’s that something far more deeply interfused when you really need it? The essence of life, as Nabokov puts it in Pnin, is “discreteness,” and we shall all be one with the sun and the flowers and the trees and the dirt and the worms soon enough. Wordsworth may mean only that God is in all things, but he never mentions Him, and the thought scarcely seems adequate to the occasion.

The experience, to be fair, must be distinguished from the doctrine. One can accept its value, or at least its intensity, and agree that “blue sky” and “sense sublime” (a pointless inversion, a Wordsworth specialty) do little to illuminate it. Again we have “deep,” often favored by people who, like Wordsworth, have trouble seeing surfaces; its derivations appear seven times in Tintern Abbey. “Living air” conveys, in a small way, what he is after; but after numerous readings of this poem I am convinced this is an accident. For Wordsworth flatness, which he calls “the real language of men,” was a matter of theory as well as practice. We are taught in English class that Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads began the counter-revolution toward simple language after more than a century of Miltonic ornament. In fact Dr. Johnson parodied this sort of thing before Wordsworth was born:

I put my hat upon my head
And walked into the Strand;
And there I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand.

Wordsworth quotes this parody in the preface, and his efforts to explain it away make for amusing reading. The difference in style between this and the Lucy poems is very fine indeed.

Wordsworth owes his reputation to several happy accidents, major and minor. He wrote his best verse at the turn of the 19th century, just as the toff and the heroic couplet were going out of style and the peasant and blank verse were coming in, which has made him a convenient stand-in for wide cultural change. He wrote so much and so repetitively, in both verse and prose, that his point is impossible to miss, and scholars have dined for two centuries on his vast corpus like buzzards on carrion. His more deservedly influential friend Coleridge promoted him mightily. He uniquely has a psychiatric cure on his résumé: John Stuart Mill, better known as a philosopher than a literary critic, says in his Autobiography that reading Wordsworth helped him recover his sanity after a mental breakdown. Above all, perhaps, Wordsworth firmly believed in his own greatness, and the fact that so many people still do, after so much time has passed, testifies to the awful, the lofty, the sublime, the deep power of suggestion.

(Update: Ben H. casts the movie version of The Idiot Boy. Esme comments. David Fiore comments. Jim Henley slags Hardy for the same reasons I slag Wordsworth, by way of praising Frost. Fair enough; but note that in The Darkling Thrush, which he quotes in full, the description of the thrush itself, “frail, gaunt, and small, / In blast-beruffled plume,” is exactly what a thrush looks like. Tim Hulsey is more generous than I am, and you should read him before you believe me. Also much, much more Wordsworth over at Bandarlog.

  9 Responses to “Nature’s Narcissist”

  1. "A landscape presses, on most of us, thoughts of our own insignificance." Yes, a landscape presses me with thoughts of very different time-scales than my own life’s (some much shorter than my life), and (sometimes) with the relative power of (some of) the forces of nature compared to my own body’s limited strength. But humans can totally reshape landscapes with their bulldozers, and my life is much longer than an ant’s and our technology is gradually making it longer and longer. In any event, my "signifance" is not to be measured against anything in the "landscape." No, to feel "insignificant" requires more than gaze at nature, but dualism, mysticism and the self-loathing of the modern mindset.

  2. Except that Wordsworth’s "Lines" isn’t about the landscape (and if you look at the actual title, Wordsworth makes it clear that this is not a landscape poem). It’s about what you can do when all your ideals have come crashing down around you.

  3. Jim: "Scale" would have been better but I think you take my point.

    Tim: Oh, it’s about Wordsworth, that’s for sure. But it takes the landscape as its occasion, and if you describe landscape at length you ought to do so accurately. Wordsworth offers scarcely any particulars for his disillusionment beyond the "din of the city" and "the dreary intercourse of daily life," as if it were a matter of a grueling commute. For convincing disillusionment I’ll take The Lie by Ralegh or Ode to Himself by Jonson. His consolation is a jejune pantheism in which no serious reader can share. And it is obvious that he has no talent for verse whatever.

  4. One contemporary, can’t remember who, described Wordsworth as a man with "one eye on a daffodil and the other on a canal share."

  5. "Ut pictura poesis," Aaron. You’ve taken your distate for Wordsworth to a ludicrous extreme by claiming that "it is obvious that he has no talent for verse whatsoever."

    The "god of the machine" has no clothes.

    Example: The passage you’ve quoted as being, in essence, "the point" of the poem is part of the fourth verse paragraph. If it were really the big revelation, "Lines" would end there — but as you know or ought to know, it doesn’t. There’s still nearly a third of the poem to go. It means something, too. By leaving it out, you distort what Wordsworth is doing here.

    In the fifth verse paragraph, Wordsworth knocks down his theory of "the presence," and tries to see what’s left after it vanishes. He’s done this before, in the third verse paragraph: "If this / Be but a vain belief …."

    It would follow, logically, that this new system of belief doesn’t offer Wordsworth the comfort he seeks, either. Instead, he finds his comfort — if that’s the right term — hanging out with his sister, which is where the poem ends.

    In a way it’s similar to the resolution of Arnold’s "Dover Beach" (another great poem, though it suffers from overexposure), which proposes love as a replacement for lost faith. Wordsworth, of course, proposes friendship to replace this faith — and unlike Arnold, he seems to find this substitution sufficient, at least for the moment.

  6. More enterprise in walking naked anyway.

    After his bit about "a vain belief" Wordworth proceeds exactly as before, with the lines about the Wye I quoted. If he really disbelieves his pantheism and his work argues the contrary then he is indulging in the doctrine of the consolatory lie, which is even more revolting than the doctrine I criticized.

    But the paean to Dorothy, right.

    My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
    The language of my former heart, and read
    My former pleasures in the shooting stars
    Of thy wild eyes.

    Wordsworth sees himself not just in nature, but in Dorothy too. Who would have guessed?

    He also restates, in this last section, in ever more ludicrous terms, the precise doctrine that he is supposed, on your reading, to have exploded. We get this:

    Knowing that Nature never did betray
    The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
    Through all the years of this our life, to lead
    From joy to joy…

    And this:

    Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
    Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
    Is full of blessings.

    And this brings me to my favorite part, where Wordsworth offers Dorothy herself some bonus consolation:

    If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
    Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
    Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
    And these my exhortations!

    So she’s got that going for her. Which is nice.

  7. Aaron, you’ve paraphrased three of the poem’s most deeply emotional lines with a single word: "Nothing."

    Wordsworth states a slightly different doctrine in the final paragraph, yes. But as you’ve already sensed, he explodes the doctrine even as he states it — and the undermining language of the lines you’ve omitted (all those negatives) casts his belief as an act of resistance, almost denial. Then he gives us another "If," and tries to see what remains when this theory gets smashed. Turns out, what remains is his sister, this particular moment, a few "healing thoughts," and faith.

    Is Wordsworth reprehensible for exerting his will to believe? I don’t see the "doctrine of the consolatory lie" here, unless it’s also at the center of William James’s pragmatist psychology.

    I’m always impressed by the shifts in tone and rhythm Wordsworth manages with blank verse. It’s a different, more personalized use of the form than his predecessors employed. Yet Wordsworth sacrifices none of the technical advancements of the eighteenth century in depicting this new subject material.

  8. I read to the Wordsworth Trust at Grassmere two years ago. To see the Lake District and the great fells deepened my appreciation for Wordsworth. Before doing my own stuff I honored the ghosts by reciting from memory Kubla Khan and the Intimations Ode. The latter still strikes me as one of the great heterometrical odes because the music is so magnificent, however silly some of the sentiment. But not to be outdone, my fellow performer who shall remain nameless and who is a terrible reader, reduced all of us to a stupor by stumbling through the bland blank verse of Tintern Abbey. Ouch.

  9. Tintern Abbey is nowhere near the Lake District; it’s on the southern end of the Welsh border near the town of Chepstow. Perhaps this is why "Five years have past; five summers with the length of five long winters": perhaps W didn’t get to the West Country very often.

    The ruins of Tintern Abbey are very impressive, and worth visiting. Second only to Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire I’d say.

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